We have a problem in conservation biology (ok, to be fair, we have a lot of problems, but this is one of them). The biggest environmental challenges–climate change, ocean acidification, over-fishing, agricultural runoff, species invasion, and myriad other emergent issues–are global challenges. They respect no borders and require a cohesive, multinational response. Researchers, stakeholders, and conservation managers, on the other hand, are increasingly impeded in their work by more and more restrictive barriers to travel.
This isn’t new. The Global South has often been excluded from major international conferences hosted in European and American cities, which are expensive and hard to get to. Onerous visa restrictions from and to a multitude of countries have been in place for decades, but the events of this week have made it clear that scientific societies need to plan for and provide alternatives to a membership that may not be able to travel to a conference yet still need to participate.
Yesterday, the Marine Section of the Society for Conservation Biologists and the leadership of the International Marine Conservation Conference released the following statement:
To increase accessibility for the 5th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC5) held in Malaysia in 2018 and in response to recent restrictions on the ability for members of the global research and conservation community to travel based on religion, orientation, or place of birth, the IMCC5 Organizing Committee is creating a directive to establish enhanced telepresence and telerobotics capabilities for the conference. This new initiative will include a telepresence-only participation tier (at reduced rate to cover the cost of service) with access to livestreams of all talks, ability to present remotely, and access to mobile telerobots to facilitate participation in post-presentation discussion at social events. Telepresence options will be open to all SCB Marine members, but priority will be assigned to those who ability to travel is restricted for political reasons as well as students with demonstrated financial need.
More details will be provided as we work with telerobotics companies and internet service providers to prepare the necessary infrastructure for this initiative.
We’ve talked about doing remote conference for ages, but telepresence is rarely well implemented and livestreamoften come as an after thought. To my knowledge, no conservation conference has made an effort to integrate telerobotics into the social functions of a conference. What makes this difference is the decision to appoint a director of telerobotics with ties to the tech and conservation worlds to make this initiative a core component of the conference. It should come as a surprise to no one who reads Southern Fried Science that I’m spearheading this initiative.
The decision to establish a telerobotics initiative stemmed from discussions at the last IMCC meeting in St. Johns, Newfoundland, but ensuring global participation in the pre-eminent marine conservation conference has been a goal since inception. After all, the decision to move the conference to Malaysia is an attempt to make travel easier for researchers from Asia and the South Pacific.
Is it a perfect solution? No. But by providing as many ways to participate as possible, we are striving to make a more accessible and inclusive conference. Technology is rarely the only solution, but it is can and should be part of the solution.